Even though biologists said the dunes sagebrush lizard might need legal protection under the Endangered Species Act, the US government decided three years ago that it would be good enough to help the lizard—found only in the Permian Basin’s oil patch—by relying on the oil and gas industry and ranchers to undertake voluntary conservation efforts.
Recently publicized documents show, however, that a top biologist with the US Fish & Wildlife Service questioned the scientific integrity of the decision. Then, officials retaliated against Gary Mowad with a transfer that effectively ended his long career.
"I witnessed what I believed was the Fish & Wildlife Service orchestrating a predetermined decision on the dunes sagebrush lizard listing package," Mowad tells SFR. When biologists were deciding if the lizard required protection, he says, it was as if a light switch flipped. All of a sudden, he says, "the attitude changed to where Fish &Wildlife needed to do everything and anything it could to avoid listing of the lizard."
That spurred Mowad to file a complaint in 2012 with the US Office of the Inspector General and to contact his agency's Scientific Integrity Office. In addition to his concern that the agency failed to list the lizard for protection, he alleged that two Albuquerque employees, Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle and Deputy Regional Director Joy Nicholopoulos, had engaged in misconduct.
Within 72 hours of hearing about the complaint, high-ranking Fish & Wildlife officials transferred Mowad from the agency's top job in Austin, where he lived with his family and cared for his elderly mother, to a "detail" in Albuquerque with no end date and what he says were no discernable goals. To him, it felt like punishment.
He remained in the post for about a month and then accepted a detail in Washington DC for about three weeks until Daniel Ashe, the agency's director, rescinded authority for the second transfer, and Tuggle ordered Mowad back to Albuquerque. That's when Mowad decided to retire, ending 24 years with the agency. Before earning the supervisory job in Texas, he had worked as a special agent, investigating wildlife crimes like smuggling and illegal hunting.
"That's a long career, and I had a chance to see a change in the agency over those years," he says today, from his home in Austin. "Through my early and middle years, I worked with some of the greatest managers anyone could ever have—people with a great deal of courage and leadership."
Until about a decade ago, he says, the agency's managers would delegate decision making to the lowest appropriate level. That is, the people who knew the science or the species best would be the ones making, or recommending, decisions to regional managers.
By the end of his career, he says, decision making had been forced up the chain—to the point where three or four people were making decisions for an entire region. That's demoralizing for staff, he says. And it's been an especially big problem in Region 2, headquartered in Albuquerque and covering New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Oklahoma.
"The mission is still very noble, and a lot of people are still committed to it, but there is definitely a problem with leadership at Fish & Wildlife at this time," says Mowad. "It's not that the [biologists and field staff] lost their integrity. The leaders lost the courage—the institutional courage—to support the decisions of the biologists."
The erosion of safeguards between science and politics began during the Clinton administration and intensified throughout the George W Bush presidency, says Jeff Ruch, executive director of the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which publicized Mowad's case in part because it shows that Mowad was punished after filing a complaint with the agency's own internal scientific integrity officer.
Despite a 2009 memo from President Barack Obama that called for executive agencies to safeguard the ability of scientists to talk with reporters and to establish "peer review" as the standard for credible science, conditions remain difficult for biologists.
Fish & Wildlife Service officials in Albuquerque did not grant interviews for this story.
In an emailed statement, a spokesman says, "The suggestion that the Fish & Wildlife Service tolerates scientific misconduct or whistleblower retaliation is patently false," and calls Mowad's case one of "complex scientific and personnel matters."
Officials with both Sens. Udall and Martin Heinrich refused to comment on the case or on protections for biologists who may be afraid to raise their concerns.
Neither the case nor the agency's response bodes well for federal biologists.
During Mowad's hearing before the US Merit Systems Protection Board, an associate inspector general for whistleblower protection testified that the agency's handling of whistleblower complaints was "grossly inadequate" and noted that more complaints arise from Region 2 than any other. She also agreed with Judge Mary Ann Garvey's assessment that within the agency—and specifically, by Director Ashe, Deputy Director Rowan Gould and Tuggle—"whistleblowing retaliation is tolerated or even condoned."
Mowad received a settlement from the agency after the hearing, yet Fish & Wildlife hasn't changed course with respect to the lizard.
For activists, the look behind the scenes is enlightening.
"It was encouraging to see there are still people in the agency who have the courage to stand up against politics," says WildEarth Guardians' executive director, John Horning, who adds that politics has intruded on the recovery of other endangered species in New Mexico, including the Rio Grande silvery minnow, the Mexican gray wolf and the lesser prairie-chicken. "But the agency doesn't have many people left like that—they've either been fired, left for other jobs, retired, or they're afraid to speak out because of retaliation like this."
Horning says he has no problem with politics but adds that it has to be a fair fight. And it's not anymore.
"I think it's sad that the legacy of the Fish & Wildlife Service in the Southwest is not of good science, but rather this legacy of fear and persecution of those who have the integrity to step up on behalf of species," he says. "It's a sad reflection of the state of conservation—and it goes all the way to the top."